Where 22 dogs, 36 cats and 12 rabbits are all being given a second chance
Continuing our series looking at different jobs, Chris Jones spends an afternoon as an animal care assistant at Derby's RSPCA centre.
FROM a distance, it looks like any other lamppost but get close to it and the waist-high scuff marks tell a sad story.
The post in Abbey Street, which doubles as a bus stop, stands outside the Derby branch of the RSPCA, one of the charity's animal centres.
On countless early mornings, when the staff arrive to open up the centre and feed the animals inside, they have found a lonely dog, tied to it, abandoned by its owner.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
There could be a hundred reasons why the dog has been left there. Or why a box of puppies was dropped off at the centre's back door. Or why a bag of kittens was dumped in the street nearby.
But whatever the explanation, Malcolm Hall, customer care manager for the centre, knows one thing for sure: "It is now up to us to look after these animals, to take them in, make sure they are healthy and find them a new home. That's what we do here.
"There are times it is difficult, times when you feel terrible but when you watch an animal which was sick or mistreated or abandoned walk out of the centre looking healthy and happy in the care of an excited new owner it is a huge satisfaction."
Behind the innocuous front entrance of the Abbey Street centre and past its busy front desk is a maze of rooms and cramped corridors filled with the sounds of barks and miaows.
At the moment there are 22 dogs, 36 cats, 12 rabbits and a handful of various other creatures at the centre.
In an average year, the centre will get through more than 40,000 tins of pet food.
It is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and costs about £5,000 a month to run. It has five full-time paid staff and about 50 volunteers.
The centre is autonomous – it has to meet the running costs itself and is not funded by the RSPCA.
And the point of it all is quite simple: rehoming unwanted animals.
To get an idea of what this means and how it happens, I have come for an afternoon and, as I am introduced to Malcolm, I am told there has been a new arrival only minutes before. This is Khan, a 10-year-old cat – a big boy with lush, dark rust-coloured fur and a grumbly demeanour.
I meet 28-year-old Andrea Walker, one of the permanent animal care assistants at the centre, who tells me how the cat has ended up here.
"Khan came in this morning," she says. "His owner is quite old and has started getting bad health problems and she knew that, realistically, she could not keep him any more.
"It was difficult because she was quite upset at letting him go but she knew it was the best thing to do. And it is – we can find him a new owner. Quite a lot of the cats come in this way."
Andrea, who has worked at the centre for a few years, lets me help feed and de-flea Khan, a standard procedure given to all new cats.
On an average month, if there is such a thing, about 50 cats are brought into the centre. Of those, about 40 are successfully rehomed. It means the centre is always struggling to stay on top of numbers.
"Some months are slower than others," says Andrea. "We can catch up slightly but we are always having to juggle things round to fit more in. As well as people leaving animals with us, we are given strays by the RSPCA inspectors."
At the back of the centre are several rooms, all clean, white and equipped with tables, cupboards and plenty of cat cubicles. Inside these are comfy blankets, baskets and catflaps leading to large pens for the cats to get exercise and fresh air.
In one of these, three black kittens are sleeping wrapped around each other, piled together for warmth. Their mother sits inside nearby, one eye open a sliver, keeping watch on the young ones.
In another is Khan. While Andrea opens the door, I prepare the food, chunks of something meaty in jelly. I put it in the bowl and crouch down, setting it inside Khan's cubicle. The big boy barely awakes.
But we have to disturb him to get him out on to the table and de-flea him. This wasn't on his agenda. He grumbles deeply, punctuating his displeasure with full-throated hisses. Sorry, old boy, can't be helped.
Holding him down on the table – he's quite a feisty guy – we use a flea spray on him. It's simple and quick, but it prevents a lot of problems.
Andrea says: "We have cats and dogs come in with barely any fur left. They have just scratched it all off from the fleas and they are red, raw and infected.
"It is terrible for them and it really affects you to see them that way but a simple flea spray can stop all that."
Each animal gets this treatment. They will also be given a worming tablet, neutered by a vet and fitted with a microchip, so it can be tracked if lost, and generally made road-ready for a prospective new owner.
With Khan back in his pen, staring truculently through the glass from the back of the cubicle, I pull on a yellow RSPCA bib and get ready to meet the dogs.
We head outside to the kennels and the clatter of yaps and barks begins. Out the back there is an open lot, circled by high fencing. In this yard, the dogs are walked and let loose to frolic, or whatever dogs do for fun.
In here, I meet Ozzy, a four-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier cross. The centre has many Staffies because of their popularity as "status" dogs, being close in likeness to the banned pit bull terrier.
In my life, I have had a number of cats but never a dog and there is a part of me which has always been wary of them. They are bigger than cats, have powerful jaws and their barks make me wince.
So, when I am handed the lead to give Ozzy a walk, I am tentative, it's fair to say.
The first thing he does – naturally – is leap up and plant his two big paws in my groin. Not surprisingly, this does little to alleviate my nervousness.
But, within a few minutes, I have crouched down, had my face licked and have generally put the idea that I might get my head bitten clean off behind me, at least for now.
Over the next 10 minutes, I walk Ozzy around the yard and start to enjoy the endless energy and curiosity he has for every single thing in the whole world.
Coming back in afterwards, I bump into Wendy Leivers, one of the dozens of volunteers who work at the Derby branch.
She is a dog walker and does several hours each week.
Today she has just come in from walking another Staffie, called Missie, who is sitting quietly, panting.
Wendy said: "I like to walk the dogs. I have a few routes but I'll walk them for a couple of hours. I went through Littleover, along Burton Road today. Each dog is a bit different but the only ones we won't walk are those who have just been neutered."
The centre depends on volunteers like Wendy, Malcolm Hall explains.
He says: "People think we are funded by the national RSPCA but we aren't.
"We get to use the logo and the brand but we have to raise the money to run this place ourselves. That comes from a few different sources. It sounds like a cliche but it's true – little old ladies with tins on street corners bring in a lot of money.
"Then there are the charity shops, one of which we have in Derby, the other in Belper. And there are the volunteers, who help us hugely."
People who are interested in giving an abandoned pet a new home have to be checked by the charity, who will send someone out to visit their home. There is a cost: £120 for a dog and £75 for a cat.
"But for that," Malcolm says, "they are getting a healthy, de-wormed, de-fleaed and microchipped pet, with a few months insurance on top of that. But more, they are giving a pet – which could have been neglected, abused or just abandoned – a new, happier home."
I ask Malcolm what three things he would most want all animal-owners to understand, if he could.
He replies: "The first and most important thing is neutering. The best way to avoid any unwanted pets, to avoid a huge number of abandonments, of kittens and puppies being left outside here, is neutering. There are a lot of myths about it, that it will hurt the pet, or somehow rob a male of its masculinity. It does none of these things.
"The second would be to get it microchipped. It's so easy but it can make tracing an owner so much easier.
"And the third is to use flea treatment. Some of the most upsetting things I've seen in my years here are cases where fleas have been rampant on an animal and they just scratch themselves raw with it."
As I am getting ready to leave, a couple walk out of the doors with a new dog, having picked him out a few days earlier. They are both smiling, fussing over the animal.
Malcolm says: "Sometimes you get animals staying here for a long time. You get attached and it's hard to part. If that ever changed in us, then perhaps we shouldn't be doing this job.
"But, no matter what, seeing an animal go to a good new home is one of the most satisfying things I know."